Psychology key to penalties success, says Staffordshire professor

For long-suffering football fans, England crashing out on penalties is a repetitive nightmare. But, according to Staffordshire University academic Ellis Cashmore, it’s one that can be avoided.

Cole and Young comforted by Roy Hodgson and his assistant Gary Neville
Cole and Young comforted by Roy Hodgson and his assistant Gary Neville

For long-suffering football fans, England crashing out on penalties is a repetitive nightmare. But, according to Staffordshire University academic Ellis Cashmore, it’s one that can be avoided.

Roy Hodgson with his hands in his pockets, Ashley Cole’s slumped shoulders and Ashley Young looking to the floor – the body language of the England team before this week’s all-important penalty shootout said it all.

Professor Ellis Cashmore believes Sunday’s loss to Italy epitomises a defeatist attitude to penalty-taking, one that is played out in the minds of the manager and his players before the first spot-kick is even taken.

“Hodgson had his hands in his pockets before the shootout and was just looking at the crowd,” said Mr Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport. “I knew then nothing was going to change with regards the result.”

He points to other sportsmen and women, including rugby’s Jonny Wilkinson and Spanish number one tennis player Rafael Nadal, as examples of where intense practice proves its weight in gold.

It’s a conscious and deliberate pressure to do something over and over again until you can do it automatically without any conscious thought – and that is the level professional players should be at.”

Before the nervewarcking game, Hodgson and his backroom staff were insistent on pointing out much practice had gone into penalties – but the all too familiar failure to prepare was clearly evident in Sunday’s deafeat, Professor Cashmore added.

“Psychologically, that chip from Andrea Pirlo really gave them an advantage. What Pirlo is saying is that this is so easy and I am going to demonstrate how much confidence we have – this shows the game has been won.”

The players have this attitude that you can’t duplicate the pressure so say ‘we’ll just do a dozen or so penalties after training’ but that’s not enough. Jonny Wilkinson would do hundreds of kicks every day. People use to marvel at his consistency - it’s just practice over and over again.”

Italy’s Andrea Pirlo admitted it was all about having the right mental attitude.

“Hart seemed to be very confident in himself and I needed to do something to beat him,” he said. “Penalties are a very personal thing and it [the chip] seemed to be a psychological blow,” he added. So with all this talk about psychology, preparation and body language, just how do you solve a problem like an England shootout? Professor Cashmore has an ambitious answer.

“When the players get together three or four weeks before a tournament, I would want to see 200 penalties by every player every day – with an 80 per cent strike rate”

“That way you can instil the absolute self-confidence. No goalkeeper should stop a penalty struck in the top corner – he has not got the reaction time. Every penalty saved is a faulty penalty.”

By Richard Woodall